Whereas switches and bridges operate at OSI Layer 2 (the data link layer),
routers primarily operate at OSI Layer 3 (the network layer). Like bridging,
the primary act of routing involves moving packets across a network from a
source to a destination. The difference involves the information that is used to
make the forwarding decisions. Routers make decisions based on network
layer protocols such as Internet Protocol (IP) and Novell NetWare
Internetwork Packet Exchange (IPX).
Routing gained popularity in the mid- to late 1980s as a result of internetworks
growing beyond the capability of bridges. Before this popularity, networks
were relatively small and isolated, and bridges could handle the jobs of
forwarding and segmentation. However, as networks grew, routers facilitated
larger scaling and more intelligent growth across wider physical distances.
Although routers are more expensive and complex than bridges, routing is the
core of the Internet today.
Routers Talk Among Themselves to Find Routes
Routing involves two processes: determining optimal routing paths through a
network, and forwarding packets along those paths. Routing algorithms make
the optimal path determination. As they determine routes, tables on the router
store the information. Routers communicate with each other and maintain
their routing tables through the exchange of messages over the network.
Routing updates are one particular type of message. A routing update contains
all or part of another router’s routing table and allows each router to build a
detailed picture of the overall network topology.
Routing algorithms fill routing tables with various types of information. The
primary piece of information relevant to routing is the next hop. Next-hop
associations tell a router that it can reach a particular destination by sending a
packet to a particular router representing the next hop on the way to its final
The process of exchanging information between routers is done using a routing
protocol. Put simply, a routing protocol is a series of messages that routers
use to exchange information about whether particular links are up or down,
and about other next-hop routers in the network. Three of the most common
routing protocols in use today are Open Shortest Path First (OSPF), Enhanced
Interior Gateway Routing Protocol (EIGRP), and Border Gateway Protocol
Routers Route Packets
When a router receives a packet, it attempts to associate the destination network
address in the packet to an appropriate next hop in its routing table. In
addition to next-hop associations, routers store other pertinent information in
routing tables. For multiple paths to a destination, a routing table might contain
information that allows the router to determine the desirability of one
path over another.
After a router determines an optimal path for a packet, it must forward the
packet toward the destination. The process of a router moving a packet from
its received port to the outgoing destination port is called switching. Although
the process of switching a packet on a router is similar to that of a Layer 2
switch, the decision criteria and the actual handling of the packet are different.
When a computer determines that it must send a packet to another host, it
specifies in the packet how to reach the destination network. If the destination
is unknown, the router typically drops the packet. If the destination is known,
the router changes the destination physical address in the packet to contain
that of the next hop. The router then transmits the packet out the destination
The next hop can be either the final destination or another router. Each router in
the process performs the same operation. As the packet moves through the network,
each router modifies the physical address stored in the packet but leaves
the network address untouched (because it determines the final destination).
Routers Bridge and Switches Route
In an ideal world, everything does what it is defined to do. This is not the case
with network devices. Routers can provide bridging functionality, and switches
are quickly becoming the high-density port, high-speed router of the campus.
Network devices, including switches and routers, make forwarding decisions
on OSI layers higher than the network layer. For example, routers can provide
firewall functionality in which the router inspects Layer 4 packet information,
and switches such as content switches can perform forwarding decisions based
on Layer 5 through 7 packet information (such as the URL in an HTTP packet).
Why Should I Care About Routing?
Routing is one of the fundamental aspects of networking.
Routers can learn possible routes (rather
than having to have the route manually configured
and constantly updated). This is one of the primary
reasons that ARPANET, which originally connected
seven sites, was able to scale exponentially into
the modern Internet in only a few years. Many
routers today have address tables with more than
100,000 entries, and they are updated constantly.
What Problems Need to Be Solved?
Routed networks are often large and complex, and
it would be prohibitively difficult to manage and
update network information on all routers all the
time. To account for this, several algorithms have
been developed. These algorithms allow the routers
to learn about the network and then make decisions
based on that information.
To learn paths (or routes) through a network and
then decide where to send packets, a router must
know the following information:
• Destination address: This is typically the IP
address of the data’s (packet) destination.
• Source address: The router also needs to know
where the information came from (typically an
• Possible routes: These are likely routes that can
get information from the present location or
source to some other location (the destination or
closest known point).
• Best route: Routers also must know the best
(“best” can mean many things) path to the
• Status of routes: Routers also keep track of the
current state of routes to ensure timely delivery
What Exactly Does “Best” Mean?
Routers often make decisions about the best possible
path to get information from a source to a destination.
“Best” is loosely defined; it depends on
what the network values. These measurements of
value are called metrics. The network administrator
determines which metrics the network values.
Here are several metrics:
• Hop count: How many times a packet goes
through a router.
• Delay: The amount of time required to reach the
• Reliability: The bit error rate of each network
• Maximum Transmission Unit (MTU): The maximum
message length (or packet size) allowed
on the path.
• Cost: An arbitrary value based on a network
administrator-determined value. Usually some
combination of other metrics.
Static Versus Dynamic
Routers must learn about the network around
them to determine where to send packets. This
information can be either manually entered (static
routes) or learned from other routers in the network
• Static routes: When a network administrator
manually enters information about a route, it is
considered a static route. This information can
be changed only by a network administrator (in
other words, the router doesn’t learn about network
events). Static routes allow for tight control
of packets but become difficult to maintain
and are prone to human error. However, static
routes may be used to work around a temporary
problem or for performance enhancement.
• Dynamic routes: Routers on a network can
learn about possible routes and current route
status from other routers in the network. Routes
learned in this way are called dynamic routes.
Unlike static routes, any changes in the network
are learned without administrative intervention
and are automatically propagated throughout
Flat Versus Hierarchical
With flat networks, all routers must keep track of
all other routers on the network. As networks
grow, the amount of information contained in the
routing tables becomes larger and largerAlthough this method is simple, it can result in poor network performance as the
number of routing updates grows exponentially with each new router.
Hierarchical networks segment routers into logical groupings. This simplifies
routing tables and greatly reduces overheard traffic.
Intradomain Versus Interdomain
Intradomain and interdomain routing can be easily understood in the context of
large-scale hierarchical networks. In this regard, think of each segment as its
own autonomous network. Within each autonomous network, intradomain
routing protocols (also called Interior Gateway Protocols [IGP]) are used to
exchange routing information and forward packets. Interdomain routing protocols
(also called Exterior Gateway Protocols [EGP]) are used between
autonomous networks. This distinction is made because there are different performance
requirements for internal and external networks.
Distance Vector Versus Link-State
The two main classes of routing are distance vector routing and link-state routing.
With distance vector routing, also called “routing by rumor,” routers share their
routing table information with each other. Each router provides and receives
updates from its direct neighbor. In the figure, Router B shares information with
Routers A and C. Router C shares routing information with Routers B and D. A
distance vector describes the direction (port) and the distance (number of hops
or other metric) to some other router. When a router receives information from
another router, it increments whatever metric is being used. This process is called
distance accumulation. Routers using this method know the distance between
any two points in the network, but they do not know the exact topology of an
How Information Is Discovered with
Network discovery is the process of learning about
nondirectly connected routers. During network discovery,
routers accumulate metrics and learn the
best paths to various destinations in the network.
In the figure, each directly connected network has
a distance of 0. Router A learns about other networks
based on information it receives from
Router B. Routers increment the distance metric
for any route learned by an adjacent router. In
other words, Router A increments by 1 any distance
information it learns about other routers
from Router B.
As more time goes by, the router learns more
about the network and can process packets
With link-state routing (also known as shortest
path first [SPF]), each router maintains a database
of topology information for the entire network.
Link-state routing provides better scaling than
distance-vector routing, because it sends updates
only when there is a change in the network, and
then it sends only information specific to the
change that occurred. Distance vector uses regular
updates and sends the whole routing table every
time. Link-state routing also uses a hierarchical
model, limiting the scope of route changes that